Analysis: Microsoft puts phone developers on hold

By Graeme Burton
30 Oct 2012 View Comments
Andy Barber Mubiloo

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For months, prospective developers of Windows Phone 8 apps have been tantalised by the “imminent” release of the new platform’s software development kit (SDK) – the only way to develop apps on Microsoft’s proprietary smartphone platform.

Further reading

Unlike the firm’s desktop operating systems, Microsoft has locked down the Windows Phone 8 platform – taking its cue from Apple – so that the only way to develop apps for Nokia Lumias, Samsung Ativs, and HTC 8Xs is to apply for a download of the SDK via the Microsoft Connect website.

Yet, just days before the official release of Windows Phone 8, the SDK still hadn’t officially appeared. Reports earlier in the month suggested that Microsoft was intentionally holding back its release to make sure that all of the new features of the new operating system would remain secret until release day.

Of course, as the Windows Phone 8 platform offers backwards compatibility with Windows Phone 7 series apps, the Microsoft Windows Phone 8 app store won’t be completely bare.

“You can install Windows Phone SDK 7.1 (and the Windows Phone SDK 7.1.1 update) and continue to build apps and games that target Windows Phone 7.5. The existing Windows Phone SDK installs side by side with Visual Studio 2012, and you can feel confident that the code you write today will work on Windows Phone 8 devices,” advised Microsoft’s Windows Phone Dev Center.

Backwards compatibility

However, apps built using the old SDK for Microsoft’s old Windows Phone operating systems won’t be able to take advantage of the new features built into the new platform.

Microsoft, meanwhile, has refused to comment or answer Computing’s questions about the non-appearance of the SDK. “We are just waiting,” says Dr Tim King, chief technology officer of mobile developer 5app. “We have been studying all the documentation and are waiting until we can get our hands on the real kit.”

Until the SDK is available, mobile app developers like 5app and Mubaloo can’t begin porting their Android and iPhone apps, or begin writing new apps for Windows Phone 8.

“We have thought about porting, how much code we can re-use and the tutorials on the website have given us an insight into what could potentially happen. But we can’t do anything until we get the official line,” says Andy Barber, lead developer at Mubaloo (pictured).

And this will have a knock-on effect on all the conversations that the company will have with potential clients upfront before they even code a single line, he adds.

It isn’t just the absence of the SDK that is the problem – but the lack of devices too. Nokia’s flagship Lumia phones, which stand to make or break the company, won’t be available until mid-November. And, while pre-sales have reportedly been good, if the developers don’t get their versions in good time, they won’t be able to test their apps as rigorously as they might like to before releasing them.

“At 5app, we have a policy of testing on real devices. We have 40 different mobile phones, running many different versions of Android and so forth. A lot of people develop on simulators, but that’s rubbish because all you can do is tell whether it works on the simulator,” says King.

Please, sir, can I load my app?

In the enterprise, though, there is a wider problem for mobile app developers as a result of the shift to a locked-down app store on smartphones and tablet computers, adds King. Why, he asks, should an organisation that wants to run a particular in-house written app on their corporate devices have to ask the device manufacturer for permission in order to be able to do so?

“Why should they have to jump through Apple’s hoops to see whether their app can go on to a public space? They don’t want it in a public space [the app store]. They only want it for their employees, customers or whatever. But Apple says that they’ve got to follow its rules,” says King. “An enterprise can have its own product turned down by Apple, which is absurd if you are a big organisation.”

The difficulty of doing something as simple as loading an enterprise application onto a locked-down device does not have a straightforward solution.

“In the US, you can become your own Apple store if you can prove to Apple that you are a ‘good boy’. But then you have to go through all the hassle of putting into it all the IDs of all the devices owned by all of your employees. And that does not solve the problem of people wanting to write apps to give to their customers,” said King.

For Microsoft, there is a risk that it is forgetting the key reason that made its Windows platform popular in the first place: the immense eco-system of third-party applications available. 

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